Iowa farmers sued for high nitrate discharge levels

Des Moines Water Works moves ahead to sue farmers from three Iowa counties.

The Des Moines Water Works has elected to pursue litigation against farmers and their drainage districts more than 100 miles from Des Moines in the three Iowa counties of Sac, Buena Vista and Calhoun, saying the high levels of nitrates in groundwater runoff threatens the water supply for customers who depend on it for drinking water.

In the Notice of Intent to Sue January 9, 2015, the Des Moines Water Works claimed, “The role of agricultural drainage as a direct pipeline of nitrate pollution into our streams and rivers and the harm it has caused our state and nation is measurable and significant.”

Des Moines Water Works is a regional water utility providing drinking water to approximately 500,000 Iowans, drawing most of its raw water supply from the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers. Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, Des Moines Water Works said it is obligated to meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) standards for the maximum contaminate level (MCL) in its finished drinking water. The MCL standard for nitrate is 10 mg/L.

It is important to note though that Iowa’s city nitrate removal systems can dump the excess nitrates they filter out back into the water or local sewer system for other city utilities to have to deal with in their own drinking water.

Recent upstream water monitoring by Des Moines Water Works at 72 sample sites in Sac County has shown nitrate levels as high as 39.2 mg/L in groundwater discharged by drainages districts. Both the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers experienced extremely high concentrations in the spring and summer of 2013, fall of 2014, and winter of 2015.  Nitrate levels above the MCL increases the cost of drinking water treatment for more Des Moines Water Works customers, the outfit said. In 2013, when nitrate levels in the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers were at a record high, Des Moines Water Works incurred approximately $900,000 in treatment costs and lost revenues, Water Works said.

The state of Iowa has implemented its Nutrient Reduction Strategy which directs efforts to reduce nutrients in surface water from both point sources, such as wastewater treatment plants and industrial facilities, as well as nonpoint sources including farm fields.

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey has been an outspoken advocate of a voluntary, rather than regulatory approach to improving water quality. He said Des Moines Water Works is taking the wrong approach and their decision to pull back from collaborative partnerships in the Raccoon River Watershed and pursue costly litigation does not appropriately recognize both the “complexity of improving water quality and the importance of maintaining productive agriculture” in the state.

Jerry Mohr, a farmer from Eldridge and president of Iowa Corn Growers Assn said Iowa’s climate and rich soils are the main factors in the nutrient fluctuations in the rivers. However, the lawsuit implies an unrealistic “one size fits all” legal solution will improve water quality.

Bill Stowe, chief excecutive officer and general manager at Des Moines Water Works, said, “We are not seeking to change agriculture methods, but rather challenging government to better manage and control drainage infrastructure in order to improve water quality within the state. Because drainage districts transport nitrate pollution through a system of channels and pipes, they should be recognized and held accountable like any other point source polluter.”

“Point sources” discharging into water ways have permits under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES).  Water Works contends NPDES permits have been successful nationwide in controlling pollution caused by industrial waste and sanitary sewer discharge.

Since the filing of the Notice of Intent to Sue on Jan. 9, Des Moines Water Works representatives have met with numerous officials and stakeholders, but no means of resolution of the issues has been proposed.

Northey said his message to Iowans since the potential lawsuit was first announced was that it shouldn’t distract farmers from the important work to improve water quality. “Iowa’s agriculture community is committed to working together and making significant investments to continue to make progress.”

The most effective way to improve water is to engage producers and have them innovate, Northey explained. The regulatory process takes producers down a path that becomes confrontational and sometimes even causes a political reaction.

A regulatory process would likely require 10 years battling lawsuits, another five years of determining regulations required from those lawsuits, and an additional 10 years to conclude if the regulations in place had any impact.

“I think we can get a lot more done in the next 25 years in a non-regulatory process than using lawsuits to create a regulatory process," said Northey. "It’s more effective at creating innovation that will be the next generation of tools."

“I think we give up innovation and the attitude of producers being able to find out what works on their farm if regulators get too descriptive,” Northey added.

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